"Who Sinned That This Man Was Born Blind?"

Kim Riddlebarger
Friday, February 28th 2014
Mar/Apr 2014

Almost every culture’whether it be ancient or modern’possesses a common superstitious belief that whenever anything bad happens to someone, it is because the person has done something to bring about the tragic event. It is common for people to ask themselves (or even ask others) what the victim did to cause God (or fate or karma) to bring the calamity down upon them. The underlying assumption here is largely correct: bad things happen to bad people. But the conclusion is not correct: that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between bad things and specific sins. The fact is that the one questioning why something bad happened to someone else is equally guilty before God as the person about whom they are wondering. Two examples from Scripture come readily to mind.

Mixing Blood and the Tower of Siloam

In Luke 13:1-5, we learn of two tragic events that occurred in first-century Israel and created a great deal of speculation among the people about the cause. The first of these calamities is mentioned in verse 1 when we read of those "who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." We do not know exactly to what historical event this was referring (we have no known record of it), but the implication seems to be that Pilate ordered certain Galilean Jews to be killed at the time of the Passover sacrifices, in effect "mixing blood."

The scene is an important one because the Pharisees commonly taught that bad things happen to people as a consequence of personal sin, based upon Old Testament texts such as Job 4:7, "Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?" The notion that the Galileans' blood was mixed with their sacrifices is addressed directly by Jesus in the form of a rhetorical question. In verse 2, he asks, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?" In verse 4, Jesus even adds an example of another tragic event apparently known to his audience: "Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?"

After acknowledging the connection made by his hearers between calamity and divine punishment, Jesus corrects this erroneous assumption that these people (the Galileans and those killed in Siloam) had committed some specific sin that brought about the event that killed them. Twice (vv. 3, 5) Jesus emphatically answers "no" regarding any connection between the calamity and the victims' personal sins. But twice Jesus speaks of the need for repentance on the part of all.

Jesus' point is that sinners who tragically died were no guiltier than any of the others of Adam's fallen race. Instead of speculating about what others may have done to bring about their demise, those listening to Jesus needed to carefully consider the guilt of their own sin before God and then repent of those sins before they too faced God in the Judgment.

"Who Sinned?"

In John 9, we read of an encounter between Jesus and a man who was blind from birth. In verse 1, we read that "as [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth." This man was well known in Jerusalem and regularly begged for alms from passers-by. Since the man's infirmity was obvious, the disciples asked Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (v. 2). The disciples' question reflected a view held throughout Israel that if someone suffered from such an infirmity there must be a cause. Since it was believed that God did not inflict people with such maladies, then the cause must be found in human sin. The only possibilities were that the man himself had sinned or else his parents had done something that led to the birth of a blind child.

The disciples may not have known that the man had been blind from birth. Later on in the chapter after Jesus heals the man, the parents disclose that their son was indeed born without sight. If the man had done nothing to bring this about (having been born blind), then perhaps his parents had committed some grievous sin; or as Jews at the time believed, the man's mother may have sinned while pregnant resulting in the blindness of her child. In either case, the unwillingness to consider the man's blindness through the lens of God's providential purposes (however mysterious these purposes may be) led to the judgmental self-righteousness apparent in the disciples' question to Jesus. If the man is blind, then someone must have done something wrong for such a terrible thing to happen.

Jesus' answer to their question, followed by the Pharisees' anger at the man and his parents after Jesus heals him, reveals the futile efforts of sinful men and women who attempt to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between a particular sin and the man's blindness. Jesus informs his disciples of a bigger purpose in view in matters such as these: "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him" (v. 3). Jesus' point was that God has his own purposes in such things. We know from many other passages that when Adam sinned the human race was subject to all the consequences and maladies of a sinful race. But to attempt to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between some specific sin and an illness overlooks the fact that all people are born in sin.

In the case of this particular blind man, Jesus said that this man's infirmity would lead to a display of the works of God. Unknown to the disciples, Jesus was about to heal the man’the sixth of his miraculous signs recorded in John's Gospel’as a demonstration that he is both Israel's Messiah and the Son of God. No doubt, Jesus' miraculous healing of this man born blind (vv. 6-7) was intended to point ahead to Jesus' ultimate glorification upon the cross (when he paid for the guilt of human sin) and in his resurrection from the dead. When Jesus healed this man, he pointed us ahead to the moment when he would be raised from the dead, which was the guarantee that all the consequences of human sin, including blindness, would be forever removed from the human race. And for that God be praised!

Friday, February 28th 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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